Game Show Theory: Race, Class, and Survivor

It was Jay Gould who once bragged that he could pay half the working class to kill the other half.  In American labor history, that often meant fomenting and exploiting racism to divide and conquer.  Apparently, CBS wants to give us a TV metaphor for it: it announced that the contestants on the upcoming season of Survivor will be divided according to race.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Survivor (which started in 2000) pits teams against each other on a desert island.  Contestants must go through various obstacle courses as well as create their own means of survival, including food and housing.  The twist of the series is that the losing team must vote to remove one of its own members from the show.  This leads to an encouragement of chicanery, as team members, too, are pitted against each other.  Imagine The Crucible meets Gilligan’s Island, and you get the concept.

While CBS’s segregation strategy is drawing attention to the show, let’s do a race and class analysis of the “reality” game show boom.

Reality TV is not a recent phenomenon — Candid Camera, which debuted in 1948, is among its earliest examples.  But its recent popularity, I suggest, has its roots in the 1991 police beating of Rodney King, videotaped by a pedestrian, and the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion in response to the predominantly white jury’s acquittal of the cops who beat King, both of which transfixed the nation.  Since then, reality TV has become an ever growing part of the TV landscape, ranging from benign shows like America’s Funniest Home Videos (which began in 1989) to car chases reported on by news helicopters.  With Survivor‘s racial turn, reality TV may be said to return to the origin of racism, competition for profit, that is at the roots of police brutality and urban uprising against it . . . only to turn it into entertaining justification for racism.

Reality TV has been a boon for the networks and cable stations.  One, it provides quick entertainment, and two, it is cheap.  No longer is it necessary to pay actors or screenwriters to come up with material — the public would do it for you in exchange for 15 minutes of fame.  The rise of the,, self-publishing, and video-recorders have shifted the terrain of “performer” and “audience.”  Is it any wonder that reality TV really took off as the Writers Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild, and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists threatened strike in 2000?

Click on the image for a larger view.
Not Sharing in the Gains
SOURCE: New York Times 29 August 2006

Reality TV also acts as a mirror to the state of the US economy.  Shows like American Idol, The Apprentice, and Project Runway work on the elimination model, having judges get rid of contestants.  This mean-spirited approach to competition is interesting to look at in the context of the downward mobility of the middle class.  To take just one indication of downward mobility, consider this: “In the first quarter of 2006, wages and salaries represented 45 percent of gross domestic product, down from almost 50 percent in the first quarter of 2001 and a record 53.6 percent in the first quarter of 1970,” in fact the lowest since 1947 when the government began to collect the data, even as “worker productivity rose 16.6 percent from 2000 to 2005” (Steven Greenhouse and David Leonhardt, “Real Wages Fail to Match a Rise in Productivity,” New York Times, 28 August 2006).  In a sense, reality game shows codify this period of chronic unemployment, layoffs, etc., which have depressed wages and salaries, as “normal.”

Think about how much game shows have changed over the past 40 years.  Shows like Let’s Make a Deal (which originally ran from 1963 to 1977), Jeopardy! (which first ran from 1964 to 1975), and even Twenty One (which aired from 1956 to 1958) reflected the needs and desires of the middle class.  The shows celebrated meritocracy (although an extremely white one) in which victory depended upon brains and skills (despite the cheating scandal as shown in the movie Quiz Show).  And their prizes also reflected the typical aspirations of affluent society of the 1950s and 1960s.  Contestants were happy to go home with a washer, which went well with their houses in the suburbs.

While I’m sure Survivor’s new racist format will gain new viewers, I think I’ll sit this one out and watch The Price Is Right.

Kazembe Balagun is a writer grounded in both the experiences of the Black liberation movement and critical Marxist theory.  Visit his blog Black Man with a Library: <>.

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